Newsletter No 2 July 2012

Public-Private Partnerships for Sustainable Development. Emergence, Influence and Legitimacy

epaThe extensive research builds on the multi-year research project PARTNERS, funded by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO) under its “Shifts in Governance” Program, that drew on a detailed Global Sustainability Partnerships Database and a series of in-depth qualitative case studies. Key questions studied in this book include the overall effectiveness and influence of partnerships, their geographical, functional and organizational scope, and their legitimacy. Key findings presented in the book include:

(1) The balance of evidence emerging from the large-n analysis of all WSSD partnerships suggests that these new mechanisms of global governance fall short of the high expectations that were placed in them. While Pattberg and colleagues acknowledge that some partnerships are highly effective and make important contributions to global sustainability governance, overall, the comprehensive analysis of more than 350 partnerships that have been agreed around and after the 2002 Johannesburg summit leads to a rather critical assessment. To start with, many partnerships are simply not active. In addition, partnerships do not seem to address core functions where their particular role and comparative advantage was believed to lie: to initiate new global governance norms in areas where governments fail to take action; to help implement existing intergovernmental regulations; and to increase the inclusiveness and participation in global governance by bringing in actors that have so far been marginalized.

Even though there are undoubtedly a number of individual partnerships that make highly useful contributions in their areas, the overall system of partnerships for sustainable development does deliver much less than expected in 2002.

The research shows, among others, that partnerships are most frequent in those areas that are already heavily institutionalized and regulated; that they are predominantly not concerned with implementation but rather with further institution-building; that for many of them it is doubtful whether they have sufficient resources to make any meaningful contribution towards implementation in the first place; and finally, that the vast majority of partnerships strengthens the participation of those actors that already participate: governments, major international organizations, and those civil society actors that have had a say in global governance already before the partnership phenomenon emerged. In many cases, those that had been marginalized before have also been marginalized in the partnership process.

(2) A second conclusion on the effectiveness of partnerships for sustainable development derived from the research is that the political and institutional context matters. Comparative analysis confirms that the potential for partnership governance varies from country to country with regard to political, societal and economic contexts. In China, where formal political participation exists but there is a lack of political pluralism and real influence for citizens, the potential for partnerships is rather limited. In India, on the contrary, the relative freedom and autonomy of civil society allows for more partnership initiatives that include NGOs and social organizations. Within the same partnership, differences in organization can be observed depending on whether activities are implemented in China or India. Despite the global reach and universal goal formulations of these partnerships, we observe considerable variation at the domestic level. However, the analyses of partnerships for sustainable development in China and India are not static assessments. While the research shows a limited potential for partnership governance in China and greater compatibility of domestic governance with partnerships in India, in the long-run, it is difficult to assess whether China or India will emerge as a more suitable context for partnership governance. In the end, this will depend on domestic reform at large, rather than reform in the relatively limited area of sustainable development.

A regional analysis of partnerships in Africa has also highlighted the limitations of partnership governance. For example, partnerships for sustainable development were tasked to compensate for weak institutions or institutional deficits across levels of governance. However, our research indicates that they are not designed to overcome the policy implementation deficits resulting from weak governmental capacity in many developing countries, especially in Africa.

Pattberg and colleagues also offer some policy recommendations:

One of the key weaknesses of the WSSD partnership process after Johannesburg has been the weak monitoring and reporting practices. While partnerships were expected to be voluntary, self-organizing, transparent and accountable, the agreed upon Bali Guidelines did not stipulate any screening or monitoring mechanisms to ensure these qualities. Instead, partnerships should prove to be transparent and accountable by self-reporting. Moreover, the Bali Guidelines refer to the need for identifying funding resources, formulating tangible goals and specifying clear timeframes without clear reference to how these goals should be achieved. In sum, neither UNDESA nor the UNCSD were given authority to effectively review and monitor partnerships. The UNCSD’s authority and resources were limited to screening and selection at a very minimal level. Here, the authors see a particular need for policy reform. The UNCSD needs to be institutionally strengthened, while the rules and regulations specifying reporting and monitoring requirements for partnerships need a substantive overhaul.

As a minimum requirement, partnerships should provide regular proof of activity. The UNCSD should be responsible for removing inactive partnerships from the database. As a more far-reaching requirement, Pattberg and colleagues see the possibility to introduce a peer-review process among partnerships according to a joint protocol. Based on a generic reporting form, partnerships would engage in reviewing other partnerships, creating peer pressure, circulating best practices and subsequently increasing the overall coherence of the partnership process. Needless to say, a more detailed reporting mechanism would require additional financial and administrative resources within the UNCSD and UNDESA. In addition to this procedural reform, UNCSD should also be given authority to assess whether the overall sample of partnerships for sustainable development are in line with broader UN policy goals such as the MDGs and Agenda 21.

Contact: dr. Philipp Pattberg, 


Pattberg, Philipp, Frank Biermann, Ayşem Mert, and Sander Chan, editors (2012): Public-Private Partnerships for Sustainable Development. Emergence, Influence, and Legitimacy. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar. 288 pages.

Szulecki, Kacper, Philipp Pattberg and Frank Biermann (2011): Explaining Variation in the Performance of Energy Partnerships. In Governance: An Inter­na­tional Journal of Pol­icy, Ad­ministration, and Institutions 24(4): 713-736.

Pattberg, Philipp (2010): Public-Private Partnerships in Global Climate Governance. In Wiley Interdisciplinary Review: Climate Change 1 (2): 279-287.